I can still remember first hearing the phrase “compassionate conservative”. It was coming from Karen Hughes, and I was quite certain at the time that it was a lie, calculated to assuage liberal Republican and conservative Democrat anxiety about the hardship that social conservatism might cause. “Don’t worry”, it said, “we’ll find other ways to help.” You could almost hear the snicker that followed – “Because us, we’re all about the helping.” It was obvious to me then that Bush was lying about who he was and what he would do. God, or perhaps his sense of manifest destiny, or more likely the operatives who had sought him out in their search for a candidate who could unite economic conservatives and evangelical Christians – had told him to, I suppose. But in any event, you didn’t need to know he was lying – it would have been enough to be suspicious, and to recognize that there simply wasn’t anything in the man’s record that gave credit to who he was claiming he was, or what he was claiming he would do, and it seemed obvious to me that he just wasn’t ready. A few more terms in the Texas Governor’s mansion, and the voters would know.
Still, many folks bought it. Bush spoke well, and communicated his message clearly. It didn’t seem to register with many folks that that’s not hard to do – clearly, not enough voters remember Jim Bakker and Elmer Gantry – and that the Presidency is a powerful incentive to lie well. And of course, once some people sign on to a campaign, others will join simply because it appears to be the popular thing to do. No one likes being left out by the popular. And at heart, most people want to do the right thing. There is no easier quality for others to manipulate than our desire to help others and make the world a better place.
I used to think that elections didn’t really matter. I used to think that there was enough institutional inertia designed into democracy that even a moron with a plan couldn’t do much damage. But seeing an emasculated Congress bow down before an Imperial President with a need for war changed that. I used to think that a broad-based political opposition with a clear goal and public support could talk truth to power and keep it on the straight and narrow. But seeing a legacy student with gentleman’s C’s routinely outmaneuver the Democrats changed that. Now I believe that the choices we make in elections matter – sometimes very much. The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance. And it alarms me to no end that we live in an age of both unrivaled media intensity and an education system on life support. We have never been more assaulted by media persuading us that up is down, black is white and conservative is liberal, and we have never been less able to be vigilant – less able to make discerning choices about the world around us. Heck, most people, when pressed on simple geography, don’t even know where the world around us is.
Which is why, at the end of the day, Senator Barack Obama makes me so uncomfortable. I’m not immune to his charms – I first heard him speak at his ‘Audacity of Hope’ speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and I’ve never been as moved by a ‘mere speech’ as I was that day. I want – desperately, sometimes – to believe that the principles he speaks about can make the world a better place. I want to believe that the democratic process can be fixed; that we can replace the careerists, and their sycophants and fixers, with people of conviction and ability who can deal with each other and us honestly, seriously and with good will. But I’ve been lied to, conned, tricked, deceived, gerrymandered, filibustered, last-minute amended, secretly lobbied, slush-funded, cash-enveloped, PAC-ed, Watergated, WMD’ed, Abu Ghraib-ed, Judith Miller-ed, curveball-ed, yellow-caked, push poll-ed and Willie Horton-ed to within an inch of my political life, and I don’t trust any politician as far as I can spit. The most important political skill I have left – and I’m convinced that this is true for all of us – is my skepticism, and I just do not accept any longer that someone wants what they say they want and is who they say they are simply because they say so and can buy a lot of pretty advertising that repeats that claim. And as far as I’m concerned, the fact that a candidate can say so literately, even beautifully, can marshall the popular kids to their cause, and can tap into the deeply-held needs and the beliefs of the electorate, makes me more skeptical, not less. So far, all of that – every last bit of it – is TV and advertising – is entertainment, nothing more, nothing less – and I want to see action – a solid, demonstrable record that a candidate is who they say they are and wants what they say they want – before I can be called to action.
Obama may be that guy. He may well be Neo, the messiah – he may even be the one guy left who can save us from the world going to hell in a hand basket. But I don’t want a political romance, and I’m not hungry for a return to the halcyon days of Camelot. I want someone who has a proven passion and ability to fix a broken system. And until I see that in a candidate, I’m more wary than credulous, and I’m suspending my belief.
I realize that this may be a generational issue – that Obama may need to appeal in the way he does to the generations that follow me because my counterparts and I have been so spoiled by the wasted idealism of our youths (the generation that preceded me stopped a war – what did we do?) that we cannot be reached by ideology or vision. And I realize that Obama’s approach may be precisely what is needed now, here, today. But I don’t have any credulousness left. And first, I’d like to find a candidate who can fix that.
Updater: Jeff is on the same wavelength.
Update: Fred Siegel has an interesting piece on the Obama enigma in City Journal.